Obama hails 'new chapter' with Cuba as new embassies to open in Havana and Washington
President Barack Obama has announced that the United States and Cuba will reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington, heralding a "new chapter" in relations.
The embassy agreement marks the biggest tangible step toward normalising relations since the surprise announcement in December that the two countries were restarting diplomatic ties.
The posts in Washington and Havana are scheduled to open July 20, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said.
"We don't have to be imprisoned by the past," Mr Obama said at the White House. "Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward."
In a highly unusual move, Cuban state television broadcast Mr Obama's remarks live with translation in Spanish.
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba for the opening of the US Embassy.
For Mr Obama, ending the U.S. freeze with Cuba is central to his foreign policy legacy as he nears the end of his presidency.
Mr Obama has long touted the value of direct engagement with global foes and has argued that the US economic embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.
The President reiterated his call for Congress to lift the embargo, which he said has failed to bring political change in Cuba.
However, he faces stiff resistance from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who say he is prematurely rewarding a government that engages in serious human rights abuses.
Republican Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that opening a US Embassy in Cuba "will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping".
The president also will face strong opposition in Congress to spending any taxpayer dollars for building or refurbishing an embassy in Havana. Congress would have to approve any administration request to spend money on an embassy.
The US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the year Mr Obama was born, after Fidel Castro's revolution. The US spent decades trying to either actively overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening the economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other's capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as embassies.
Ahead of Mr Obama's remarks, the top US diplomat in Havana delivered a letter from the White House to Cuba about restoring embassies in the countries' respective capitals.
US Interests Section chief Jeffrey DeLaurentis arrived at the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana on Wednesday morning to hand-deliver the message.
Belfast Telegraph Digital